In his 1983 book Big Business Blunders: Mistakes in Multinational Marketing, David Ricks tells the following story:
A Japanese steel firm, Sumitomo, recently introduced its specialty steel pipe into the U.S. market. Sumitomo used a Tokyo-based, Japanese agency to help develop its advertisements. The steel was named "Sumitomo High Toughness," and the name was promoted by the acronym SHT in bold letters. So bold, in fact, that the full-page ads run in trade journals were three fourths filled with SHT. Located at the bottom of the page was a short message which ended with the claim that the product was "made to match its name." It simply cannot be overemphasized that local input is vital.
I've been able to find ads for SHT, such as the one below, but none exactly like the one that Ricks describes. Which doesn't mean the ad doesn't exist. Just that it isn't in any journals archived online.
However, among the ads for SHT that I was able to find, I found one that actually improves (and possibly complicates) Ricks's story. Because it turns out that Sumitomo had another product, Sumitomo Calcium Treatment, that it abbreviated as SCAT.
Once I could accept as an honest mistake, but coming up with scatalogical abbreviations twice seems intentional. I'm guessing either someone at Sumitomo thought it was funny, or someone at the Japanese agency was having a joke at their expense.
1976: The Bic Pen Corp. decided to branch out into the women's underwear market by introducing a line of disposable pantyhose. The thinking was that their company was already known for making disposable pens and lighters. So why not disposable pantyhose as well? Plus, they figured that female secretaries would be keen to order pantyhose together with other office supplies.
This is now considered to be a classic marketing failure. Matt Haig writes in his book Brand Failures:
When the Bic brand applied its name to women's underwear, consisting of a line of 'disposable pantyhose', they were unable to attract customers. Okay, so the disposability element was still there. But that was about it. Consumers were unable to see any link between Bic's other products and underwear, because of course there was no link.
The main problem was that the company insisted on using the Bic name. As marketing writer Al Ries has observed, using the same name in unrelated categories can create difficulties. "If you have a powerful perception for one class of product, it becomes almost impossible to extend that perception to a different class," he argues.
The company apparently didn't learn much from this failed product, because in 1989 it introduced Bic Perfume, which is considered to be another classic business blunder.
Swiss Air Deluxe is Swiss air in a can. The makers promise that it offers a variety of health benefits. For instance, "airways and lungs will recover," "improves your blood values," "gives you energy for excercises, studies and work," and "much better potency and virility."
Recently, the makers of this stuff added a new product: Swiss Virgin. This is Alpine air "enriched with the lovely smell of real Swiss virgins who are living on the mountains." They add, "The sexy underwear is inside the can !"
Apparently, Swiss Air Deluxe is mostly sold in Asia. For which reason, a few months ago it was awarded the "Devil's Stone" Award, which is a satirical prize given annually to the most absurd freight-shipped product.
A representative from the company actually showed up to accept the prize, but defended the product, arguing, "We take advantage of unused spaces on transport boats when they return to Asia, so our ecological footprint is close to zero."
I wonder how much consumer research this company did before deciding to name their product 'Sprink'. I'm guessing they thought it was a catchy shortened form of 'sprinkle'. But the problem is that the name sounds too much like 'Stink', which is exactly the wrong association for a room-rug freshener. Must be why it doesn't seem to have been on the market more than a few months.
A number of sites (such as USA Today) list Cheetos Lip Balm as one of the greatest product flops of all time. I don't agree. It was definitely weird, but I can't find any evidence it flopped.
Some context: it came on the market in 2005, created by Lotta Luv, a New York cosmetics company that specialized in licensing flavors from well-known brands. Some of the other odd lip-balm flavors they offered included Hostess Ding Dongs, Cracker Jack, Junior Mints, fourteen flavors of Snapple, and Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion. Their target market was girls 8 to 14. Apparently, young girls loved these weird lip balms.
As far as I can tell, the Cheetos lip balm remained available until 2011, which doesn’t seem like a flop.
One of the classic brand-extension blunders of all time has to be when toothpaste-maker Colgate decided to come out with a line of frozen dinners. The story is told in many places, and it's usually described as having occurred in 1982. For instance, here's the HuffPost's take on it:
We suppose the idea behind Colgate Kitchen Entrees was the fact that you’d eat the Colgate frozen dinner and then brush your teeth with Colgate toothpaste, but this one just simply didn’t work. The frozen food market was already pretty saturated when these dinners were released in 1982, and when people think of Colgate they tend to think of clean teeth, not frozen Swedish meatballs.
Lots of other sites refer to this as having happened in 1982, such as here, here, and here. But when I took a closer look at the story I couldn't find any primary sources from 1982 about it. But there are several 1960s-era sources (Washington Food Report, Weekly Digest) that refer to Colgate having test-marketed a line of frozen dinners in Madison, Wisconsin in 1964. A 1966 article in Television Age magazine offered some insight into what inspired the company to do this:
To enlarge its business, now dependent almost entirely on soaps and toiletries against the P&G and Lever competition, Colgate has long wanted to get into the $4.2-billion convenience food field. Its efforts here have been fruitless. A line of dried chicken and crabmeat entrees under a Colgate Kitchen label was introduced and quickly withdrawn. An apple-chip called Snapples has been tested off-and-on over a two-year period, and one or two other food items are in various stages. The company has specialty foods operations in France and Italy, but evidently is finding it hard to duplicate their success here.
So, unless someone can find some primary sources that indicate otherwise, I'm going to assume that the Colgate Kitchen debacle actually happened in 1964, not 1982. And it was only a test-marketing trial run, not a full product roll-out. It would definitely be bizarre if, after the 1964 failure, Colgate tried the same thing again in 1982.
Why did we [initially] focus on the male market? As consumers, we had spent years wondering why dairy companies were purposefully and squarely catering to women, while overlooking the other half of the population. Research showed that dairy products were an ideal, healthy source of protein that could be a filling and high-octane component of the male diet, but there weren’t any offerings that were encouraging men to fuel up on healthy dairy products rather than highly processed snack foods and synthetic protein powders...
The massive positive response from active women and men alike pushed the brand to fully evolve to an active lifestyles brand in late 2013. It was clear that Powerful had struck a chord with active people across the world, even being named “Best Yogurt” at the 2013 World Dairy Congress in Switzerland.
I'm guessing online mockery also played a role in their change of focus.
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.